Ask Dr Trisha: Insomnia

Ask Dr Trisha: Insomnia

Insomnia is a common condition throughout our lives but especially as we get older. In a large survey, more than 50 per cent of people over 65 reported some sort of chronic sleep disruption – in fact only one in ten said they had no sleep complaints. 

The amount of sleep a person needs is very individual but an average of seven-and-a-half hours is typical in middle age. Older people may need less sleep; six-and-a-half hours is normal for a 70-year-old, and it may be more disjointed, often disturbed by at least one trip to the loo.   

There are many different symptoms and patterns of insomnia, from trouble actually getting off to sleep, to frequently waking at night, waking early and not getting back to sleep, or waking up not feeling rested. In later life, difficulty staying asleep tends to be more of a problem than trouble drifting off.  

When you sleep your body tissues have a chance to repair themselves and your brain has time to recuperate. Just one bad night could affect your health and if you regularly sleep badly your physical wellbeing, mood, concentration, memory and mental performance all suffer. Lack of sleep could hamper your immunity and increase your risk of having a fall, too.

Try keeping a sleep diary for three months to record your sleep/wake pattern. Keep an eye out for things that could be disturbing your pattern such as a snoring partner, pain or any worries.

Avoid intense exercise, large amounts of food or stimulants such as caffeine, tea and alcohol late in the evening. Have a warm bath or shower before bedtime and try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day. If you can’t get to sleep, get up and read or listen to the radio for 20 minutes before trying again. Some people find hypnosis, relaxation techniques such as meditation, or herbal remedies such as valerian help.

Your doctor may offer you sleeping tablets, but there are many drawbacks to using these. They may leave you feeling groggy during the day, or more likely to fall if you get up at night. And their effect tends to wear off after a few weeks anyway. They may be useful to get you through a brief period but aren’t the best way to tackle insomnia in the long term.

Q My nails are really weak – could there be a medical reason?

Dr Trisha says: Nails often change in later life, becoming drier and thinner or more coarse.

Fungal infections can cause them to become crumbly, unsightly and often thickened or discoloured, but this rarely affects all of your nails at the same time. Thyroid problems can cause dry or weak nails and skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema or lichen planus could also affect them.

You can help to keep your nails strong by moisturising them regularly and by wearing protective gloves while cleaning.  Make sure your diet includes plenty of vitamins and minerals too – supplements of biotin or Vitamin B7 may help not only your nails but your skin and hair, too.

  • Dr Trisha writes a column every fortnight in Yours magazine. Ask Dr Trisha about your health problems by emailing